Mention reggae to most people these days and it’s almost guaranteed that only Bob Marley will spring to mind. Yet there was a time, back in the late sixties and early seventies when the Tuff Gong and his fellow Wailers were virtual unknowns outside Jamaica’s golden shores. Throughout this pre-roots era, the name most people in the street would most readily identify with the rhythms of the Caribbean was Desmond Dekker.
From 1967 to 1970, Desmond’s appeal was truly outernational, as he scored with a run of global chart hits that few Jamaican performers have since equalled; a feat made all the more astounding given the lack of radio airplay granted West Indian music at the time. This success not only resulted in his being widely hailed reggae’s first international superstar, but also paved the way for the likes of Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and a host of others to follow.
Born Desmond Adolphus Dacres on July 16th 1943 in Kingston, Jamaica, he spent his early days on the family farm in Danvers Pen, St. Thomas before moving back to the island’s capital, aged 15. As a youth, Desmond regularly sang in the local church choir, although his desire to follow a career as a singer was primarily sparked by the ‘race’ music that originated from across the Gulf of Mexico.
Inspired by US performers, such as Nat ‘King’ Cole, the Platters, Brook Benton and Jackie Wilson, along with local stars, Owen Gray, Jackie Edwards, Count Prince Miller and Derrick Morgan, he began writing his own material, eventually auditioning successfully for fledgling record producer, Leslie Kong.
His initial effort, ‘Honour Your Mother And Father’ promptly became a local best-seller and over the next year or so, he cut a series of well-received ska 45s for Kong’s Beverley’s Records label. The mid-sixties witnessed the growth in the popularity of vocal group recordings in Jamaica and never slow to spot a trend, Kong had Desmond briefly team up with a young group called the Cherry Pies, before uniting him in the studio with long term collaborators, Barry Howard plus three young singers by the names of Carl Samuel, Clive Campbell and Patrick Johnson ‘ collectively known as the Four Aces.
In 1967, Desmond and the Aces (now a trio) became one of the first Jamaican acts to breach the UK pop charts when, despite lack of radio support, their rude boy-inspired ‘007 (Shanty Town)’, climbed to 14 on the national listings. Although Desmond and the group failed to immediately follow-upthis astounding success, they continued to enjoy huge popularity in their native Jamaica, where a series of superior rock steady singles, peppered the local charts. Among the most notable 45s from this period were ‘Unity’, ‘It Pays’, andthe winner of the prestigious Jamaican Song Festival winner, ‘Music LikeDirt’ (aka ‘Intensified ’68’).
Finally, on 22nd April 1969, some two years since their first global hit, Desmond and the Aces powered their way back into the international spotlight with the first Jamaican-produced single to hit the number one spot in Britain: ‘Israelites’.
The feat was promptly repeated in West Germany, Holland, Sweden, South Africa and Canada while in the USA, the record proved almost equally as popular, breaking into the Billboard Pop chart in May,beforeeventually peaking at the highly respectable number 9 position.
The record opened the floodgates for reggae in the UK. In his wake, an array of Jamaican talent found themselves riding high on the British charts. Primarily promoted by the recently formed Trojan Records, the likes of Jimmy Cliff, the Pioneers, the Melodians, the Harry J All Stars, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Upsetters and the Maytals, led by Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, all achieved significant mainstream action.
Meanwhile, Desmond and the Aces remained in the national consciousness with further UK charts hits in ‘It Mek’ and ‘Pickney Gal’, although much to the dismay of many, the latter proved to be the singer’s final collaboration with his long-term singing partners.
Soon after, Desmond signed to Trojan and enjoyed his first solo best-seller; the Jimmy Cliff-penned ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’, which in the autumn of 1970 was only denied the number one spot by Freda Payne‘s soul classic, ‘Band Of Gold’.
To all intents and purposes, a bright future looked seemingly assured, but within months Desmond‘s would soon see his world fall apart. In the summer of 1971, his close friend, producer and mentor, Leslie Kong collapsed and died following a heart attack; it proved a devastating blow from which the singer struggled to recover.
A move to Creole Records the following year failed to reignite his now flagging career, while the developing roots reggae style, championed by his old friend, former work colleague and Beverley’s label-mate, Bob Marley, resulted in Desmond‘s work widely regarded as being out of touch with Jamaica’s youth.
It was not until the re-issue of ‘Israelites’, some four years after Kong‘s tragic passing that he finally returned to UK chart once more, with the record making the British top ten at the second time of asking. The follow-up 45, ‘Sing A Little Song’, also charted, placing at 16 in October 1975, but the up-turn in Desmond’s fortunes proved short-lived and sadly, further signficant hits failed to materialise.
For the next five years, poor management decisions allied to personal problems resulted in a downturn in his career, but redemption came in the form of the ska revival of the lateseventies, which sparked renewed interest his earlier work. In 1980, he signed to one of the UK’s leading independent record companies, Stiff, but while the intentions were sound, the company’s lack of experience in marketing reggae quickly proved all too evident and after two disappointing albums, Desmond was unceremoniously dropped from the company’s roster of acts.
Four years later, Desmond was dealt a further blow when a British court declared him bankrupt; a terrible comedown for a man whose talent should have assured a long and glorious career. Yet he refused to crumble in the face of such adversity, and assisted by long time friend, Delroy Williams, launched himself into a gruelling schedule of live work that eventually resulted in a new contract with Trojan Records.
Desmond continued to record for Trojan for the next twelve years and while never recapturing the glory days of the late sixties and early seventies, his talents ensured he remained constantly in demand around the globe, right up until his untimely death on 25th May 2006, when, like his old friend Leslie Kong, he fell victim to a fatal heart attack.
Desmond Dekker was a musical pioneer, a man whose unique talent as a songwriter and performer provided the gateway to Jamaican music for millions around the world. Without him, reggae may have remained simply a musical curiosity and the likes of Bob Marley and all those that have since followed, little more local heroes. There can be few greater accolades than that.